Bob Kerr, a wry, witty writer with a mordant worldview that grows from an intimate connection to the working-class life of Southeastern New England, has been the metro columnist for the Providence Journal for about 20 years, part of a 43-year career at the paper that began not long after he got out of Marine Corps service in the Vietnam War.
But he’s more than an indispensable community voice. A cubicle-mate of mine a long time ago, Kerr was also a kindly and patient presence for some of us hotheads screaming into the phone or ranting about one thing or another. Every newsroom needs an anchor. Bob was that.
The other day, Kerr got a call from the human relations people at the paper. An HR person told him and a handful of colleagues that they were being laid off as part of a wider series of cost cuts imposed by the paper’s new buyer, an outfit called New Media Investment Group, an arm of private equity giant Fortress Investment Group. Kerr was told of his severance benefits, such as they were, and after about 10 minutes, the meeting, and his career, were over. Another 21 union staffers were let go the same day, in the same manner.
I’ve been at the Columbia Journalism Review for the last seven very, very interesting years. Today, I’m stepping aside, lucky enough to be moving to a new job (TBA). As a media reporter and critic, and through the writing of a book on the media and the financial crisis, I’ve had chance to give considerable thought to the disruption, transformation—or whatever you want to call it —that began to hit home just as I was coming on board here in the spring of 2007. Along the way, I’ve come to some rather firm (some would say blunt) opinions on discrete media issues, like, for instance, the false promise of free news and the cost of amped-up newsroom productivity requirements, among other things.
But I don’t pretend to know what’s going to work for the future of news. And after a recent tour of efforts to figure it out at places as different as Bloomberg, First Look, and Al Jazeera America, it is clear enough that they don’t know either. In fact, I don’t know if anybody knows. If someone tells you they do know, they’re probably a consultant.
But one thing I feel safe in saying is that the way to create value toward a sustainable future for the long term is probably not to treat the talent like a used Dunkin Donuts wrapper. Nor, it should go without saying, is the way forward to continue to cut a newsroom that has already been cut beyond recognition, to the point that serious readers can readily see the erosion in the breadth and depth of the daily report.
Indeed, as if on cue, Kerr’s departure prompted a by-now familiar spasm of encomiums and laments from readers and former colleagues, but this isn’t about the future of Bob Kerr, who, I am confident, will be just fine, but the future of news.
I don’t consider myself a glass-half-empty kind of person (though some would!), but that’s where I find myself now. I’m impressed with the rise of BuzzFeed, with its highly credentialed investigative team amid an editorial staff of 170, according to a Pew report in March. Gawker has 132 editorial staffers; Politico, 170. Huffington Post has 575, for Pete’s sake, not so many fewer than the legacy news organization that I’ll be joining soon. In all, Pew (an invaluable resource that we take for granted but shouldn’t) found upwards of 468 new digital news outlets employing upwards of 5,000 journalists.
But on one level, it’s a numbers game. The same Pew report, basically optimistic in tone, also was careful not to neglect the inescapable fact that the number of editorial jobs lost in the newspaper industry alone totaled 16,000 in the decade ending in 2012.
And, obviously, the losses have kept on coming. Gannett just did yet another round of layoffs. On August 15, after a bad second quarter that included disappointing new-product launches, The New York Times Company’s chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and its CEO, Mark Thomson, issued a memo that promised both “significant investment and significant cost savings,” leaving the staff bracing for a new round of job cuts. A Times spokeswoman says the memo was part of continuing efforts to inform the staff about the company’s finances, and that its substance was in keeping with past statements; she declined to comment on job-cut rumors. Meanwhile some significant fraction of the 32,000 jobs lost in the magazine business has been in the news business, according to Pew.